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Coating Fumes Shut Down National Park

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

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“Overpowering” coating fumes from newly installed rails in an elevator shaft sickened employees and forced the emergency closure of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico this week, officials said.

The park’s visitor center and famous caves were closed about 2 p.m. Monday (July 23) and will remain closed indefinitely, “due to air contamination in the elevator shaft,” according to a recorded announcement on the park’s phone line late Tuesday (July 24).

 Carlsbad Cavern

 Wikimedia Commons / Eric Guinther

Some of the formations at Carlsbad Cavern date back more than 250 million years.

“The park is doing everything possible to find the source of the contamination and remedy the situation,” the statement said. “We need to err on the side of safety. We will open the cave and the visitor center as soon as possible.”

Carlsbad’s original 750-foot deep elevator shaft was drilled in 1931, and the elevator opened in 1932. Two larger elevators and another shaft were added in the 1950s. Some of the elevators are used for freight; others, for passengers.

‘Construction Mishap’

The National Park Service is investigating the source of the odor, which the initial announcement attributed to an unexplained “construction mishap.”

Park Superintendent John Benjamin told the Carlsbad Current-Argus that a contractor renovating the elevators that take visitors 750 feet below ground to view the cave formations apparently had used some type of cleaning solvent on the rails.

 Before elevators were installed, visitors traveled the 750-foot journey into the Cavern in an old guano mining bucket.

 National Park Service

Before the National Park Service installed elevators, visitors traveled the 750-foot journey into the Cavern in an old guano mining bucket.

Several reports, however, described the product as a “paint” or a “paint coating,” and the investigation was continuing.

“The contractor started the work last Monday [July 16], and there was a faint smell,” Benjamin told the paper. “But this past Sunday morning, the odor was overpowering.”

The odor “lingered, causing all types of problems for our employees,” said Benjamin. “We had four that had bad headaches.”

Officials tried to vent the shaft, “but the vapors accumulated were heavier than air,” Benjamin told the paper. On Monday, “we thought everything would be fine. But it wasn’t. The strong fumes were present, and more employees got sick. We closed the caverns to prevent visitors in the lobby from getting sick.”

Testing Planned

Benjamin said the vapors would not affect the cave formations, but “may impact the cave crickets.” Nor are the fumes affecting the site’s famous daily “bat flight,” in which Brazilian free-tail bats pour out of the Cavern in search of insects for dinner.

Benjamin said that the contractor, who was not identified, was getting specialized equipment from El Paso, TX, to test the cave atmosphere and the products being used there.

 Carlsbad Caverns’ “bat flight”—a summer evening ritual—has not been affected by the fumes, the National Park Service says.

 National Park Service / Nick Hristov

Carlsbad Caverns’ “bat flight”—a summer evening ritual—has not been affected by the fumes, the National Park Service says.

Carlsbad Cavern is one of more than 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef laid down by an inland sea 250 million to 280 million years ago. The National Park, in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, opened in 1930.

The Cavern is home to the third-largest cave chamber in North America and the seventh-largest in the world. Carlsbad’s “Big Room” is a natural limestone chamber that is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at the highest point. Visitors can hike to the cave or take the elevator.

Officials had no estimate on when the caverns might reopen. Visitors and groups that had booked tours will receive a refund. The Park Service will provide ongoing updates at (575) 785-2232.


Tagged categories: Health and safety; Solvents; Ventilation

Comment from Thomas Pickett, (7/25/2012, 8:22 AM)

It should be noted that coatings application does not produce fumes, welding produces fumes, coatings application produces vapors & mists.

Comment from Mary Chollet, (7/25/2012, 9:15 AM)

Thanks, Tom. Once we find out what the material was, we can be more precise.

Comment from Dan Chute, (7/25/2012, 10:28 AM)

Excellent and correct distinction between fumes, vapors and mists. Headline should more correctly state that an "Odor of Unknown Origin Leads Park Management to Halt Tours." Based upon the information provided all we know is there was a bad odor in a guano (bat feces and urine) mine.

Comment from Chris Murphy, (7/25/2012, 10:59 AM)

It is pretty common in the industry to only ask the price and to worry about the impact on environment, kids, pets and on the person doing the painting later when people get sick. The science is rock solid on chemicals and illness. The industry just caters to an industry that loves simple answers like we need VOCs to make good paint.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/27/2012, 9:21 AM)

Dan, I suspect the park staff are already very familiar with guano smell :) Probably less so with toluene, xylene, et cetera.

Comment from Mike McCloud, (7/30/2012, 7:58 AM)

Oh, how I love the smell of guano in the morning.

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